When I applied to Sociology PhD programs, I got rejected from my top 3 choices. I had applied to 9 programs, got into 3 programs, and was waitlisted at a 4th. As excited as I was to have some options, they were not the options I was hoping for. In fact, 1 of the 3 programs I was admitted to was a program I had applied to just cuz. Seeing my actual options forced me to reassess my goals and pick a program based on a very different criteria than I had selected programs when I applied.
I had compiled the list of 9 programs I applied to based on my interests in the subfield of social psychology. My sense is that some of the folks who are not constrained geographically choose to apply to the top 10 programs in their discipline, but I wanted to specialize in social psychology at that time, so I did my research and picked programs with a strong focus in that area. That gave me 7 programs to which I added 2 wild cards that I had no hopes of actually getting into.
So when I found out that I had gotten into 1 of my wild card applications and 2 strong social psychology programs, I was suddenly comparing 2 apples with 1 orange based on my original selection criteria. I had to rethink what I needed from a PhD program. When I applied, I assumed I would always want to specialize in social psychology, but as I assessed my options, I realized I needed to also consider the other areas that I was interested in: race/ethnicity and poverty. So I updated my spreadsheets and compared the 3 programs across these 3 areas instead of just one. Doing so gave me a sense of where I would have support across all of my subfield interests and how much support through the number of faculty specializing in each area.
In retrospect, this was the right way to make the decision. I went into the PhD without much prior exposure to Sociology and spent part of my first year figuring out the subfields and locating my interests in them. While I continued to be interested in race/ethnicity and poverty, I realized my interest in social psychology was really an interest in culture, which came with a different set of theories and methodological tools. So choosing a program based on a broader combination of interests meant I wasn’t pigeon-holed into a subfield that my interests had evolved out of.
Given that changing topics from application to dissertation is VERY common in Sociology programs, I now advise students to consider several broad areas that they’re interested in instead of looking for the faculty who are studying what they think they want to do their dissertation on. It’s much more likely that their specific interests will shift than the broad subfield areas that they’re interested in. While it is never a bad thing to have substantive overlap with faculty in a department, it is helpful to not put all your eggs in one basket. You never know if you won’t click with the one faculty member who studies what you’re interested in, so it’s in anyone’s best interest to apply to programs where there are multiple faculty who would be a good fit. Besides, a dissertation doesn’t just have a chair that supervises, it requires a committee.